A week from today, the Feb. 11 feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Church will celebrate the 21st World Day of the Sick, an occasion of reflection and prayer for all those who suffer, but also for those who work in health care ministries.
The theme chosen by Benedict XVI in his Message for the 2013 Day is taken from Christ’s words at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
To reflect further on this and other topics related to the World Day of the Sick, but also to discuss the celebration of Feb. 11 and the physical and spiritual “illnesses” that affect modern society, ZENIT interviewed Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry.
ZENIT: Why has the Church dedicated a World Day to the sick?
Archbishop Zimowski: The World Day of the Sick — as Blessed John Paul II specified in the letter of May 13, 1992, instituting the celebration — is born of the awareness that the Church, “following the example of Christ, has always perceived, in the course of the centuries, the duty of service to the sick and to the suffering as an integral part of her mission (Dolentium Hominum, 1),” and that precisely in offering selfless care and comfort to the suffering person she “today lives a fundamental aspect of her mission” (Christifideles Laici, 38)). All this while keeping very present “the salvific nature of the offering of suffering that, lived in communion with Christ, belongs to the essence itself of redemption” (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 78).
ZENIT: Why was this date chosen?
Archbishop Zimowski: The event, as established by Pope Wojtyla in the same Letter, coincides with the liturgical Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes, Feb. 11. It was, in fact, in the land of Saint Bernadette Soubirous that the first Day was held in 1993.
ZENIT: What are the aims of the Day?
Archbishop Zimowski: To foster awareness among the People of God and civil society to help the sick and to value suffering. Also to involve the Christian Communities and Religious Families in health care ministry and to foster commitment to volunteer work. Among the objectives, moreover, is that of promoting the spiritual and moral formation of health care workers, recalling in fact the importance of religious assistance to the sick.
ZENIT: So it is not just for the sick?
Archbishop Zimowski: As the Holy Father Benedict XVI stressed in his Message for this year, it is necessary to keep in mind that this Day is dedicated to all the sick, but also to health care workers, to the Christian faithful and to persons of good will. It is, the Pope has said, a “privileged time of prayer, of sharing, of offering one’s sufferings for the good of the Church, and a call for all to recognize in the features of their suffering brothers and sisters the Holy Face of Christ, who, by suffering, dying and rising has brought about the salvation of mankind.”
ZENIT: In connection with the Pontiff’s Message: every year on this occasion the Pope dedicates a letter to all those who are ill and to those who work with them. Can this Message be considered a tradition?
Archbishop Zimowski: Yes. The “tradition” of the Holy Father’s annual Message for the World Day of the Sick was desired by Blessed John Paul II himself, who wished to give the event this sense of importance and continuity. Every Message is light and inspiration for the sick, the real “protagonists” of the Day, but also for all the persons taking care of them, beginning with the health care agents, the volunteers and relatives.
ZENIT: The World Day of the Sick will be celebrated this year at the Shrine of Altotting. What activities will take place there?
Archbishop Zimowski: As is traditional, this 21st World Day of the Sick also provides, in addition to the solemn Eucharistic liturgy of Feb. 11 held at the Shrine, other initiatives such as the important International Congress on the theme “Do Good to Those Who Suffer” (Salvifici Doloris, n. 30), which will be held on Feb. 7-8 at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt. Then there will be several visits to the bedridden in hospitals and in other health institutes of the area, celebrations and prayers in the most important churches of Monaco and surroundings, and meetings with political and civil leaders of Bavaria.
ZENIT: In the 2013 Message, Benedict XVI indicated the Good Samaritan as the model to follow for all health care workers. What characteristics does this figure present today?
Archbishop Zimowski: The Good Samaritan is certainly the evangelical model of aid to the suffering given in a genuinely altruistic way, free of prejudice and selfless. As such it does not change either with the passing of time or a change in customs. Today, in many economically rich countries — characterized by a growing secularization, pressing rhythms of life and the seeming prevalence of physical aesthetics and individual interest over interiority and solidarity — it is certainly more difficult to pause to read the Gospel, to pray and to reflect. Yet — as the Pope stressed in the Message — it is necessary that the awareness grow in everyone that “the Church today lives a fundamental aspect of her mission in lovingly and generously accepting every human being, especially those who are weak and sick.”
ZENIT: It is often said that modern man is not only sick in body, but also in spirit. In your opinion, what is the pain that afflicts human beings today?
Archbishop Zimowski: Pain is not linked to time, but affects every man, in all places and in all historical periods. It’s true, however, that in the modern age, in addition to physical pain as such, one witnesses an accentuation of pathologies “of the spirit” linked to the emotional sphere. The most striking example is depression, which is evidenced in moments of crisis, including financial, as that lived at present in a great part of the Western world.
Likewise, chronic-degenerative illnesses of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of senile dementia, are increasing, and to this are added dependence on drugs and substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and other obsessive-compulsive issues such as compulsive gambling, which we see spreading among the youth of the population of many economically advanced countries.
ZENIT: The Holy Father has stressed the importance of prayer for those who work with the sick. How important is this?
Archbishop Zimowski: As Benedict XVI has explained many times, prayer is a necessity because we “need to draw from the infinite love of God, through an intense relationship with him in prayer, the strength to live day by day with concrete concern, like that of the Good Samaritan, for those suffering in body and spirit who ask for our help, whether or not we know them and however poor they may be.” Not rarely, a caregiver finds himself facing important ethical choices or sick persons for whom there are no possibilities of healing or who, in fact, have come to the end of their earthly course. In the most remote areas of the world, moreover, a health care worker can be constrained to see a sick person condemned to die because of a mere lack of drugs and basic equipment. Considering all these situations, it is evident how faith and prayer are fundamental to guide those who look after the sick, because only in this way is it possible to draw the strength to continue to carry out this mission with dedication and conscientiousness.[Translation by ZENIT]
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On the Net:
Pope’s message for 2013 World Day: www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/sick/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20130102_world-day-of-the-sick-2013_en.html